Oceano Community Services District board directors said the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office failed to respond to 911 calls made as tensions escalated during a recent board meeting.
The Oct. 25 meeting, marked by the retirement of general manager Will Clemens ahead of a performance review, quickly turned raucous as members of the public harassed and shouted over the directors, who often talked over and insulted one another.
In an email to San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson and Supervisors Jimmy Paulding and Dawn Ortiz-Legg that was shared with The Tribune, Director Charles Varni said he felt concerned for his safety after Ron Gibson, husband of Director Shirley Gibson, threatened him during public comment.
According to Varni’s email, after Ron Gibson spoke at around 6:43 p.m. and used his time to “berate and threaten” Varni, Gibson approached the dais after board President Allene Villa called the meeting to recess.
Varni said Ron Gibson ignored his requests to back off, so he dialed 911 at 6:45 p.m. to get a Sheriff’s Office response to help restore public order.
“This was the most aggressive, mean-spirited and threatening meeting of OCSD I had ever seen,” Varni said in the email. “No sheriff ever arrived even though, as I learned later, at least three other persons had called for assistance, fearful at what was taking place.”
Varni said the Sheriff’s Office made no attempt to respond to his and three other 911 calls made from the meeting from concerned members of the public.
Sheriff’s Office had ‘unafflilated civilian observer’ in audience
In his email, Varni said he didn’t hear back from the Sheriff’s Office until 7:12 p.m., 27 minutes after the original call, during which his phone was off while he was in the meeting.
Varni said he returned the call Thursday, and left a voicemail message with a deputy, who returned the call the following morning.
According to Varni’s email, the officer told him he had been next door, monitoring the meeting on SLO-SPAN, and did not think the situation required a law enforcement presence.
Varni argued that SLO-SPAN’s cameras have a limited field of vision and don’t broadcast video during meeting recesses, which is when he felt threatened and dialed 911.
The deputy also told Varni the Sheriff’s Office had a “nonpartisan civilian observer in the meeting, who told the officer that a law enforcement presence was not necessary.
“(The officer) went on to explain that he was mostly concerned about the ‘optics’ of having a sheriff come into the meeting to establish order, which could have the appearance of ‘taking sides,’” Varni said in the email. “He said that, in his mind, he had to balance freedom of speech with the possible appearance of a ‘police state’ action by law enforcement.”
In his email, Varni said he was “shocked” the Sheriff’s Office had used an unaffiliated civilian as the decider of what qualifies as a necessary police response.
“We weren’t calling for (the deputy) to make a political decision, we were calling on him to protect people’s safety,” Varni told The Tribune. “It is ludicrous.”
Oceano CSD Director Beverly Joyce-Suneson expressed a similar sentiment in a Sunday email to Paulding that was shared with The Tribune, saying the use of an unaffiliated civilian observer was “unfair” to the observer.
“This brings me a great deal of concern (because) when somebody dials 911, they are asking for emergency assistance,” Suneson wrote in her email. “They’re not asking for someone else to give the opinion of whether they need it or not. That is for the emergency response people to show up and assess because that’s what they’ve been trained for, not for a civilian who’s been asked to make a uninformed assessment.”
Suneson said she’s received several messages from community members who said they will not be attending further Oceano CSD meetings out of concern for their safety.
Suneson said she spoke with the Sheriff’s Office and was told a deputy would be present at future meetings.
Sheriff’s Office opens investigation
According to Public Information Officer Tony Cipolla, the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the incident and is investigating why deputies did not respond to the 911 calls.
“Additionally, a memo has been sent out to all station commanders reiterating our policy that a commander or sergeant should attend all established community meetings,” Cipolla told The Tribune in an email. “This policy is essential to develop our relationship with the communities we serve as well as our mission statement to provide service, security and safety to the residents of San Luis Obispo County.”
In his email, Varni said the Oceano CSD needs to implement a “zero-tolerance policy” for disruptive, aggressive, threatening and uncivil behavior at board meetings.
He suggested expelling disruptive individuals from meetings and potentially clearing the public from meeting spaces if the government can’t function due to public disruption.
“All of this is legal and permissible if the situation requires it,” Varni said in the email. “OCSD will need active law enforcement presence until the public learns that a civic culture is the new norm and average citizens feel safe attending a meeting.”